Vatican City, Jul 26, 2017 / 03:57 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In a brief hearing in a court in Melbourne Wednesday morning, Cardinal George Pell said he will be pleading not guilty to charges of multiple counts of sexual abuse. Cardinal Pell did not address the court, but his lawyer, Robert Richter, QC, told the Melbourne Magistrates Court July 26 that "for the avoidance of doubt..Cardinal Pell will plead not guilty to all charges, and will maintain the presumed innocence that he has."
In the less than 10-minute-long hearing, the judge, Magistrate Duncan Reynolds, read a prepared statement outlining the reason for the hearing and noted that it was purely administrative. The senior prosecutor of the case, Andrew Tinney, SC, addressed a packed courtroom with a statement emphasizing the need for "fair and accurate reporting" by media. Prosecutors have a deadline of Sept. 8 to prepare their brief of evidence, but Tinney indicated that it would likely be ready as early as late next week.
The next step in the trial will be a preliminary hearing — called the committal mention — which is set for Oct. 6. Wednesday’s hearing follows the announcement at the end of June that the police of Victoria, Australia were charging Cardinal Pell on multiple counts of historical sexual abuse.
As the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy since 2013 and a member of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell is the most senior Vatican official to ever be charged with abuse. With the permission of Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell has taken leave from his responsibilities in the Vatican in order to return to Australia for the court proceedings.
Both walking in and out the hearing Wednesday, Pell was surrounded by a dozen policemen as media and victims of abuse and their supporters crowded around him. Cardinal Pell did not respond to questions from media. Supporters of Cardinal Pell were also present outside of the courthouse.
Following the announcement of the charges, Pell held a news briefing with journalists June 29, maintaining his innocence and saying he takes leave from his position as the Prefect of the Secretariat of the Economy in order "to clear my name." "I am looking forward, finally, to having my day in court. I'm innocent of these charges, they are false," he said, adding that "the whole idea of sexual abuse is abhorrent to me." "News of these charges strengthens my resolve, and court proceedings now offer me the opportunity to clear my name and then return here, back to Rome, to work," he continued.
Pell was ordained in the diocese of Ballarat in 1966, where he served as a priest and later as a consulter to Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who oversaw the diocese from 1971-1997. He was appointed auxiliary bishop for the archdiocese of Melbourne in 1987, and was named archbishop in 1996.
In February 2016, the cardinal testified for the third time before Australia's Royal Commission regarding claims that surfaced in 2015 accusing him of moving “known pedophile” Gerald Ridsdale, of bribing a victim of the later-defrocked priest, and of ignoring a victim’s complaint. Established in 2013, the Royal Commission is dedicated to investigating institutional responses to child sexual abuse.
Despite having testified before the commission twice before on the same charges, Pell again offered to give his testimony, which he did via video conference from Rome. Shortly before the hearing, abuse allegations surfaced accusing the cardinal of multiple counts of child sexual abuse dating as far back as 1961, which he has continued to fervently deny.
Cardinal Pell has also been supported by the Vatican, which issued a June 29 communique from Holy See spokesman Greg Buke echoing Pell’s statement and affirming that Pope Francis had granted the cardinal an absence from his duties "so he can defend himself." On behalf of the Holy See, Burke also voiced respect for the Australian justice system, which "will have to decide the merits of the questions raised."
However, at the same time, he said "it is important to recall that Cardinal Pell has openly and repeatedly condemned as immoral and intolerable the acts of abuse committed against minors" and has cooperated with Australian authorities in the past, specifically with his depositions before the Royal Commission. Moreover, the cardinal has been supportive of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and as a diocesan bishop in Australia, introduced systems and procedures "both for the protection of minors and to provide assistance to victims of abuse."
Burke closed by noting that Cardinal Pell will no longer be attending public events while facing the charges.